“It’s ok to geek out on people”: idga and Chicago Game Development

August 8, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Megan E. Doherty

“It’s ok to geek out on people, too.”

A room full of gamers is a thing to behold.  July 30th at Columbia College in downtown Chicago, the International Game Development Association (igda) held a discussion about “Chicago Game Development.”  Panelists Jared Steffes (TapMe Games), Christian Arca (Toy Studio), Mike Bilder (Jellyvision Games), and Ryan Wiemeyer (Wideland Games) fielded questions from a packed room of budding game engineers, artists, and everything in between.

Moderator David Wolinsky (of Adult Swim and the Onion’s A.V. Club) launched the proceedings by asking for the qualities of game development in Chicago that set it off from the scenes on the coasts.  Aside from the hellish winters, it seems Chicago’s Midwestern flavor touches even the unlikeliest of places.

As it turns out, this “neighborhood” feel to Chicago’s game development community may do more than inspire warm fuzzies.  It may actually be contributing to its denizens’ ingenuity.

The industry has changed from more publisher-driven licensers to indie companies, building from their garages.  New entrepreneurs are crowdsourcing funds through Kickstarter, sharing ideas, self-publishing and using digital distribution – in this world, connections can make or break not only the quality of your ideas, but whether you find the right people to implement them.

Wiemeyer, to emphasize this point, stressed that he’s never had to “apply” for a job in the traditional fashion.  Everything has stemmed from networking and world of mouth, with “interviews” being mere technicalities.

Of course, the changing world of fledgling garage developers can’t get by on friendship alone.  That’s where a little help from business-friendly government can come in.  Michigan and Wisconsin have laws that recognize that the video game is another art form, just like film and books, and so grant tax breaks to game studios.  While Illinois doesn’t currently have a similar law in place, Steffes seemed optimistic that such legislation could be passed in the future.

What’s more, indie developers can take advantage of game design development labs, such as YetiZen, which function as incubators to help young start-ups get off the ground.

Free, premium (or, “freemium”) games, as well as social gaming, are hot topics in the industry today.  As customers grow increasingly leery of the high sticker price of some games, there is increasing money to be made on the free-to-play front, rather than the traditional publishing/retail model.

The last question dealt with the fact that most people haven’t caught on to what the tax break laws implicitly recognize:  that game design and development is a form of art, albeit a very modern one.  When asked how they feel about their livelihood not being accepted on the same level as more “high culture” artistic expressions, but rather as “childish,” Bilder didn’t mince words.  To brush off games as mere child’s play is foolish:  not only by failing to recognize the level of creativity, blood, sweat, and tears that goes into it, but also by denying how much games pervade our culture.  The same person who might snub his or her nose at traditional video games does so while playing Angry Birds, or, at the very least, the mobile phone version of solitaire.

A Chicago-based independent writer, Megan E. Doherty wrote a dissertation on some crazy stuff, and is happy to have re-joined society – complete with a bunny, a banjo, and a lotta books.  You can catch a few laughs at her off-beat humor blog, www.irreverentguidetolife.com, and you can stay abreast of whatever it is she’s working on, on that tumblr thing:  meganedoherty.tumblr.com.

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